Lifecycle Carbon Emissions of Electricity Generation Sources

Which are the cleanest sources of electricity? How much carbon is generated by coal compared to other sources?

Nuclear is, in addition to hydro power, our most important source of low-carbon energy . Its life-cycle emissions are amongst the lowest, right down there with hydro and wind power. All three of these energy sources have emissions that are roughly a hundredth of those of coal power.

As climate scientist Ken Caldeira said: the atmosphere doesn’t care whether the electricity came from a wind turbine or a nuclear reactor. It just cares about greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy is extremely low carbon, with no emissions in operation. Its full life cycle emissions are comparable to onshore wind, and surprisingly, considerably cleaner than solar.

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Life Cycle Assessment.

 

The chart above shows the median carbon balance of different ways to produce electricity according to the IPCC (Life-Cycle Assessment, LCA), 2011. An updated analysis was published in 2014, with a summary available here. For the avoidance of doubt: life cycle analysis of nuclear power here includes uranium mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication, plant construction, use, decommissioning and long-term waste management. Still a pretty small carbon footprint, huh?

For more detail on lifecycle emissions analysis of different electricity generation sources, check out this excellent summary paper by the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. The team writes accessible briefing papers for busy members of parliament to help them get to grips with complex issues.

greenhouse-gas-emissions-per-energy-source

Comparison of Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Various Electricity Generation Sources divided per literature. Source

The chart above compiles analysis from universities, governments and industry. Despite some small variations in the findings, the results show that emission intensities are consistent regardless of the source.

 

References and Further Reading

i International Energy Agency. Energy Technology Perspectives [Online]. 2008 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

ii International Atomic Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2009 – GLOBAL ENERGY TRENDS TO 2030 [Online], 2009 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

iii International Energy Agency. Hydropower-Internalised Costs and Externalised Benefits [Online]. 2001 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

iv International Atomic Energy Agency. Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Electricity Chains: Assessing the Difference [Online]. 2001 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

v World Energy Council. Comparison of Energy Systems Using Life Cycle Assessment [Online]. 2004 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

vi Fritsche, U. et al. Treibhausgasemissionen und Vermeidungskosten der nuklearen, fossilen und erneuerbaren Strombereitstellung – Arbeitspapier (Greenhouse gas emissions and avoidance costs for nuclear, fossil and renewable power production–working paper) [Online]. 2007 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

vii Australian Government. Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy -Opportunities for Australia? [Online]. 2006 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

viii Alsema, E., de Wild-Scholten, M., & Fthenakis, V. Environmental Impacts of PV Electricity Generation – A Critical Comparison of Energy Supply Options. European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference [Online]. 2006 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

ix OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. Externalities and Energy Policy: The Life Cycle Analysis Approach [Online]. 2001 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

x Fthenakis, V., & Kim, H. C. (n.d.). Greenhouse-gas emissions from solar electric and nuclear power: A life-cycle study [Online]. 2007 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xi Meier, P. Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis [Online]. 2002 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xii Fthenakis, V. Nuclear Power-Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Risks a Comparative Life Cycle Analysis [Online]. 2007 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xiii European Commission Staff Working Document. 2007 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xiv Fthenakis, V., & Kim, H. Quantifying the Life-Cycle Environmental Profile of Photovoltaics and Comparisons with Other Electricity-Generating Technologies [Online]. 2006 [cited August 1, 2010];

xv ExternE National Implementation Germany [Online]. 1997 [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xvi Climate Declaration for Electricity from Wind power [Online]. [2008] [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xvii Climate Declaration for Electricity from Nuclear Power [Online], [2007] [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xviii Climate Declaration for Electricity from Nuclear Power [Online]. [2007] [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xix Climate Declaration: Product: 1kWh net Electricity from Wind Power [Online]. [2010] [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xx Climate Declaration for Electricity from Hydropower [Online]. [2008] [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xxi Climate Declaration for Electricity and District Heat from Danish Coal Fired CHP Units [Online]. [2008] [cited August 1, 2010]; Available here.

xxii EDP Otelfinger Kompogas Biomass [Online]. [2008] [cited August 1, 2010]

xxiii EDP of Electricity from Torness Nuclear Power Station [Online]. [2009] [cited November 13, 2010]; Available here.